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Gamification. Buzzword or the next big thing?

Remember those little gold stars you used to get in elementary school when you did something well? Most kids strive to achieve those stars, even though they have no real value. So, why do teachers reward students with them? And why do students like to receive them?

Whatever psychological motivations drive students to achieve gold stars is exactly what the gamification trend is trying to exploit. Gamification is the use of game design techniques, game thinking and game mechanics in a non-gaming context. Reward, recognition, a sense of accomplishment, competitiveness, ambition, pure fun—all of these factors come into play with gamification, but touching on them isn’t the real goal. Gamification is really about influencing behavior toward specific, measurable outcomes.

Despite the current hype surrounding gamification, industry analysts are predicting rapid adoption. Gartner estimates that by 2014, more than 70 percent of Global 2,000 organisations will have at least one “gamified” application. But what does it mean to
  “gamify”? Does it provide any real value?

 What’s in a game?
The basic concept underlying gamification is reward for action. Some criticise the hype saying it’s just a new name for practices that have been in use for decades. There is some truth to this; companies have long used strategies to incentivise customers, such as loyalty programs, sales and coupons. However, the behaviors driven by such strategies tend to be more transactional than permanent.

Gamification, on the other hand, is intended to drive deeper, longer term engagement. Whereas a coupon might help clear out last year’s inventory of winter coats, gamification strives to turn those transactions into relationships. And that means providing rewards that are more meaningful to players, like social status, career advancement or financial gain. This could apply to both internal and external audiences—whoever’s behavior you are trying to influence.

Analytics are key
For some pundits, gamification’s unfortunate moniker is too silly to be taken seriously. And it seems to cause some confusion as well. “People think it’s about having fun, but it’s really about measurement and change,” says Charlie Bess, an HP Fellow. “Fun can be one of its strengths, but that depends on the culture of the organisation.”

While a gamified app or process can be fun, the focus is really on creating a structure or system in which analytics can be applied to measure and influence user behavior. Gamification provides a context for collecting user data, and also reflecting some of that data back to users to further motivate desired behavior. It also provides meaningful metrics to business leaders, ensuring that objectives are being met and letting them know in advance if changes are required.

“With all the analytic capabilities available, organisations can apply a basic behavioral understanding to objectives and goals to adjust the behavior of the audience and achieve a desired future,” says Bess. In other words, the “game” aspects should follow a clear articulation of specific, measurable goals. Sometimes it may be the goals or the way that organisations are trying to accomplish them that need to change.

From processes to products
Gamification can apply to any business context in which you are trying to affect specific behavior or structured change, either internally or externally to your business. “The only limit is your imagination,” says Bess. Gamification isn’t dependent on a particular type of technology or process. It’s simply applying the aspects that make games motivating and fun to non-gaming contexts to achieve engagement that fulfills specific goals.

Let’s say that your goal is to improve the metrics of your call center. You might create a “game” that tracks the closed tickets per employee as a kind of race. Prizes or special status can be awarded to “players” who achieve set milestones. With this “game,” you could influence employees to improve the call center, while also pursuing their own personal advancement. Note that it is critical to understand what motivates the people in that role—individuals are not all motivated in the same way.

In the consumer space, an athletic company could create an exercise app designed to let users record and track their fitness goals, and share their success, challenges and progress with other users. While the user is working toward a very personal goal—fitness—they’re also engaging in a long-term, meaningful relationship with the company’s brand. As a result they might buy more of the company’s products or even become a brand advocate.

Gamification: The next big thing?
So, where is all this going? Despite the media coverage and analysts’ lofty predictions, adoption of gamification techniques has been relatively modest. And because gamification is a somewhat abstract concept (and one that requires innovation and creativity to apply), many businesses that are interested in gamification are still trying to figure out best uses and practices.

“I see the opportunity for gamification practices to be heavily adopted because they’re so foundational to what business and employees both want and need to do,” says Bess. Indeed, most gamification scenarios present a win-win. Business gets something it needs. Users (whether employees or customers) get something in return, however tangible or intangible that reward may be.

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